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Shopping for Hawaiian fabric on Oahu.

Shopping for Hawaiian fabric on Oahu Wearing a garden of tropical flowers on your chest is one way to commemorate a trip to Hawaii; many a vacationer has enjoyed his gift-shop aloha shirt long after returning to the Mainland. But buying some genuine Hawaiian fabric--to make into a tablecloth or bedspread, caftan or curtains--could be a more interesting souvenir of an Island experience.

High-quality Hawaiian fabric is hard to find in California, and it's not often sold elsewhere on the Mainland. But around Oahu, where most Hawaiian vacationers are likely to touch down, there are many fabric stores. We list some that have an especially good selection.

Before you go shopping, you might want to know a little more about Hawaii's fabric tradition--one of the few in the American West. Taken together, its four main design categories--tapa, palaka, Polynesian, and pictorial (see photographs above)--offer their own nonverbal history of Hawaiian Island settlement.

Waves of influence: plantation work

shirts to Harry Truman's golf attire

Tapa designs, originally scratched on the pounded inner bark of the paper mulberry tree by Pacific islanders to create garments and ceremonial cloths, are simple and geometric, often employing a sort of diagonal grid. Colors tend toward ocher and earth tones.

Palaka, introduced by Hawaii's early traders and favored by Asian plantation laborers, is classically an indigo-and-white plaid material of heavy cotton. The pattern is woven into the cloth, not printed on the surface. It was made into simple, loose-fitting work shirts (often worn by Hawaiian cowboys), which are considered the ancestor of the aloha shirt.

Polynesian floral motifs were first used as borders for the pareu, a wraparound garment fastened with a casual knot (think of Gauguin's Tahitian females). Hibiscus, anthurium, bird of paradise, and other tropical blossoms, though boldly stylized, are quite recognizable.

The motifs we call "pictorial" are truly indigenous, created in the 1920s and '30s with the rise of tourism in Hawaii. Promoting the attractions of the Islands with images of hula girls, grass shacks, and palm-lined shores, they appeared on clothing offered to travelers as souvenirs. In the mid-'30s, Ellery J. Chun began to mass-produce the "aloha shirt." This shirt--boxily cut, short-sleeved, and with a flat-lying collar--was like an artist's canvas, its shape dictating the design of the fabric used to make it. President Truman wore one in a then-shocking portrait on a 1951 cover of Life magazine.

In the early decades of the pictorial aloha shirt, cruise lines, hotels, and the U.S. Army and Navy all had their own versions made. Special aloha pictorials were created to commemorate special occasions--such as Hawaii becoming a state.

Another popular souvenir garment, the one-size-fits-all mu'umu'u, was originally a yokeless chemise devised by early missionaries to clothe the Islanders' nakedness. Eventually it, like the more fitted version called a holoku (with seams and a yoke patterned after the missionaries' own Mother Hubbards) and the pareu-style sarong (made memorable as draped across Dorothy Lamour), would be found beside many a California pool.

For more detail, see H. Thomas Steele's The Hawaiian Shirt (Abbeville Press, Inc., New York, 1984; $19.95).

Where to get the goods

Souvenir shirts and muumuus are easy to find throughout the Islands. But yard goods--whether kettle cloth, cotton, cotton blends, silk, or rayon--are harder to come by. Each of the following stores has some sort of distinction: it carries only Hawaiian fabric, or has a very large selection, or it offers "art" Hawaiian fabric (one-of-a-kind pieces or designs). None is more than an hour's drive from Waikiki.

All area codes are 808.

Arakawas, 94-333 Waipahu Depot St., Waipahu 96797; 677-3131. This store, outside the Honolulu area and formerly the general store for a sugar mill, gives you a taste of old Hawaii. The Arakawa family has been credited with reviving palaka and popularizing palaka yardage in colors other than the classic indigo and white.

Betty's Sew What, Hawaii Kai Shopping Center, 377 Keahole St., Honolulu 96825; 395-8866. Besides floral and tapa and some palaka, you'll find fabric printed with Hawaiian quilt designs.

Blue Ginger Designs, Ala Moana Center (in Ward Warehouse), Honolulu 96814; 526-0398. Of special interest here is a spin-off from the basic Hawaiian prints: an array of cotton batiks in smaller, subtler designs. Table linens and ready-to-wear clothing also are for sale.

Creative Fibers, 450 Piikoi St., Honolulu 96814; 537-3674. Florals, tapas, and palaka, also some pareu pieces by artists.

Harriet's, King's Village, 131 Kaiulani Ave., Honolulu 96815; 923-6144. Florals and tapas in Waikiki's only yardage store.

Hula Supply Center, 2346 S. King St., Honolulu 96826; 941-5379 or (800) 237-3347. This is the place for floral pareu cloth, sold in 45-inch widths that are customarily 2 yards long. You can also learn 10 different ways to wear a pareu.

Kaimuki Dry Goods, 1144 10th Ave., Honolulu 96816, 734-2141; Singer Hawaii, Ala Moana Center, Honolulu 96814, 946-6591; and Kuni Dry Goods, 2575 S. King St., Honolulu 96826, 941-9102. All have large selections of Hawaiian fabrics. Kuni also runs the fabric sections in Oahu's four GEM department stores.

H. Miura Store, 66-057 Kamehameha Highway, Haleiwa 96712; 637-4845. On Oahu's north shore, this can be combined with a visit to one of the famous surfing beaches or to a sugar or pineapple plantation. Large assortment of palaka and other Hawaiian fabrics--plus classic Hawaiian surfing trunks.

Musashiya, Ala Moana Center, Honolulu 96814; 955-0092. Many Hawaiian fabrics.

Tahiti Imports, Ala Moana Center, Honolulu 96814; 941-4539. Yardage here comes by the roll in two-color, all-cotton, Polynesian floral designs. Sarong patterns available. Also sells woodblock-printed pareus from Samoa and Tahiti.
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Date:Nov 1, 1989
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